Thursday, June 25, 2009

Realistic Habitats?

This past weekend, I took the long trip to Vancouver to visit with an old friend that I know from my Congo days. [Sadly, many people who aren't familiar with the North Island or British Columbia, don't really understand that 'visiting' for a weekend in Vancouver isn't really 'visiting' at all: it's more like 'rendez-vous-ing'... but that is a North-Islander rant that I'll save for another time!]

As part of our tourist tour of Vancouver, I took my friend to Stanley Park, and of course, to the Vancouver Aquarium. We spent hours marveling at the diverse and beautiful creatures that are usually hidden beneath the sea and we both left the Aquarium bubbling with excitement about the ocean. Our excitement carried over into dinner, with a long conversation about ocean conservation-related issues.

At the Vancouver Aquarium - I don't know why I look so melancholy here
Many aquaria in North America do a fantastic job of showcasing the beauty of our seas and sparking a passion, in both the young and the old, to preserve this beauty for generations to come. They help to inspire promising young scientists, marine biologists, and conservationists; and for those who already love the ocean, aquaria can serve to reinforce their passion or provide an outlet to share this passion with others. There is no better time to give a message of conservation to the general public than right after you have shown them firsthand the fish, sea turtles, whales, and other marine life that we stand to lose through thoughtless practices.

But how realistic are the pristine ocean-replica habitats that house marine life in a modern-day aquarium? Not very, I'm sure a German duo would argue. They have created an art exhibit at the Schonbrunn Zoo in Vienna to challenge all of our typical expectations of natural habitat depictions.

According to the artists, "the viewer is forced to reconsider traditional modes of animal presentation and simultaneously to question the authenticity of concepts which are restaging 'natural' environments while they are increasingly endangered."

To quote the artists further: "Present-day conceptions of zoological gardens aim at the presentation of animals in an idyllic and apparently natural environment, untouched by civilization. But this is a contemporary conception, since courtly menageries and kennels were adapted to the exposure of animals as decorative objects. Until the early years of the 20th century, animals were part of a preferably spectacular and exotic staging, to the entertainment and amazement of the public. The artificial and the sensational were foregrounded, without creating a realistic setting of the natural environment of the animals."

So what do you think? What is a better way to get a conservation message across: using exhibits like the ones at the Vancouver Aquarium that show marine life at it's best and demonstrate what we stand to lose; or using exhibits such as the one at the Vienna Zoo that show natural life at its worst and demonstrate the harsh reality of an undesired future?

All photos in this post (except for the first): © Steinbrener/Dempf


  1. This is really interesting. I've never seen an exhibit like the one in Vienna, and the images are certainly jarring. They get your attention and make you think about the impacts of human activities on our environment in a way that only showing a pristine environment does not.

  2. Great post, Heather! Really informative and thought provoking to learn how other aquaria are informing patrons. I like this German artist's exhibit a lot. It wakes people up to the sad reality of marine pollution and the fact that the choice is in our hands. In answer to your question, I'd like to see both - side by side. Give people a dose of reality, shock them (perhaps out of their complacency) but also show them the beauty of a pristine (or restored) ecosystem. Reminds us that the future really is in our hands. Thanks for the interesting column!
    P.S.: now if only our Aquarium wasn't imprisoning captive whales anymore.